Our Visit to Alamogordo and Oliver Lee State Park

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Alamogordo and its surrounding area have much to discover, however, this visit was a destination of circumstance.  We dropped one of our iPhones while exploring Mesa Verde National Park and of course, it shattered the glass.  The closest Apple store for repair was in Albuquerque, NM.  Our phones are important tools in our full-time RVing lifestyle.  They are used for many things.  Directions, looking up information about weather and attractions, booking our next RV site, checking the temperature of our RV when we are out exploring, taking photos, even controlling the functions of our RV https://hikingmemere.com/our-gear-list-leisure-travel-van/, and so much more!  

This unexpected problem could have ruined our plans. Instead, we pivoted and simply changed our direction of travel, allowing us to stay a few nights in Alamogordo, hopefully with a repaired iPhone.  Oliver Lee State Park had availability and power hook-ups which given the forecasted mid ninety-degree temperatures would be helpful in keeping our furry friends comfortable.  I started researching the area immediately and was pleasantly surprised by the amount and diversity of activities.

One of my go-to tasks in beginning my research is asking Google what to do in an area.  I quickly had a list of the best things to do according to Tripadvisor.  From that list, I began my more detailed research. Which activities would be the best for Jess and I?  We would only have three days to explore the area and would need to prioritize.  I was captivated by the pictures I saw of White Sands National Park and that became our first activity choice.

Oliver Lee State Park https://www.emnrd.nm.gov/spd/find-a-park/oliver-lee-memorial-state-park/ is only about a thirty-minute drive to White Sands.  We decided it would be a good day to bring the dogs hiking with us.  Dogs are allowed on trails with a leash and the temperatures were supposed to be a reasonable mid-eighties.  Don’t misunderstand me our dogs no longer hike.  They are both fifteen-year-old Cocker-Poos and their self-propelled hiking days are behind them.  They were mighty hikers in their day, hiking many of the New Hampshire 4000’ peaks and even sections of the Appalachian Trail.  Jess carries Brownie.  He has been blind for over half of his life, but he still enjoys the sounds and smells of the world around him.

I carry Teddy.  He loves his backpack https://hikingmemere.com/hiking-safety-gear-hiking-memeres-gear/.  We even ride our mountain bike together.

On arrival, we briefly stopped at the Visitors Center to gather the information needed to best explore the park. The Dune Life Nature Trail was recommended as the best trail in the park so we headed in that direction first.  It was a short drive and directly across the road from the Playa Trail.  We decided to hike both of them while we were in the area.  As soon as I stepped out of the vehicle, I realized how different this sand is from Great Sand Dunes National Park, which recently visited. I anticipated this would be a similar experience, just with white sand. 

What I learned is Great Sand Dunes is primarily composed of fine-grained silica sands, created from erosion due to wind and water.  That sand reminded me of the beach sand I was used to seeing along the Southern Maine coast where I grew up.  When I stepped into the dunes my weight displaced the sand.  Every step I took forward I slid back at least a quarter of a step.  It was an exhausting, arduous process and that coupled with the heat of the sand made a mid-day late summer hike quite a challenge.

White Sands is made up of 98% pure gypsum, which is rare.  Gypsum is clear and dissolves in water, unlike silica sand.  As the dissolved gypsum crystals constantly collide they form sands, which reflect light making them appear white.  This reflection allows the sand to stay cool in the sunlight.  When I began walking on the Nature Trail, my steps were visible in the sand, but I was not sinking in.  Walking was as easy as hiking on any other trail.  I had to stop and pick up a handful of sand to examine. It was a beautiful bright white.  I would describe it as smooth and sticky.  This little trail meandered its way around a loop, up and down several dunes.  We walked past many varieties of plants, shrubs, and trees.  We searched for animal tracks and took many pictures.  

There are several small trails with many storyboards that provide a wealth of information.  We explored all of them.  Our final trail before lunch was the Alkali Flat Trail.  A loop trail that allows visitors to explore as far into the dunes as they choose, and simply turn around when they have had their fill.  We were treated to free entertainment during our walk!  Many people had their brightly colored flying saucer snow sleds and were trying to sled down the dunes.  It was fun to watch.  There were varying degrees of success.  The occasional sled getting stuck and ejecting its passenger, or the very slow roll to one side ending in the passenger laying in the sand and the sled continuing to the bottom of the dune.  All fun stuff!  

We decided to hike the trail until we saw nothing but undisturbed dunes with no human tracks.  We climbed several dunes and began to see nothing but white.  There was no more vegetation.  Only the silhouettes and the shadows caused by the different heights of the dunes.  There were no more footprints or sledding tracks.  There was only silence and the sounds of our own breathing.  Jess and I just stood there and took in the mesmerizing scene.  It was like nothing I had ever experienced.  I guess that’s why so many movies have been filmed here.  After taking a few pictures, we headed back for lunch. We enjoyed our lunch under the cover of the most interesting, shaped picnic tables I have ever seen.  They added to the out-of-world experience, I was feeling.  

We even spent a little time playing with our phones and taking pictures.  It had rained the night before we visited the park and there were several puddles.  We noticed the reflections being created and had some fun!

After about six hours of hiking and exploring White Sands, it was time to go.  It would have been an incredible day if it had ended then, but we still had more time and more energy.  We brought the dogs back to the RV to let them rest, while we went to see the World’s Largest Pistachio.  

McGinn’s Pistachio Land https://pistachioland.com/ was another top activity listed in my research.  They grow their own pistachios and grapes, which they turn into wine and a variety of flavorful roasted pistachios.  They offer a thirty-minute tour of their trees and vineyard for three dollars per person.  We were just in time for the last tour of the day.  Our tour guide A-A-Ron (his joke not ours) was wonderful.  We boarded an oversized bright green bus-like golf cart with other tourists like us.  Many of them enjoying homemade ice cream which is sold at the property. Our journey through the vineyard was a mix of education and dad jokes.  

The farm experienced a prolonged freeze event in 2011 and lost many of their pistachio trees and grapevines.  The farm is still in recovery mode as the trees and vines take time to mature for harvest, which impacts pricing.  The size of the ten-year-old tree that was just starting to produce small amounts of pistachios looked like a twig compared to a mature, high-producing tree.  We saw harvesting equipment and learned about their irrigation systems.  It was informative, interesting, and fun!

After our tour, we made our way into their store.  It was filled with everything pistachios.  Shirts, postcards, magnets, coffee cups, water bottles and so much more.  My favorite part was the roasted pistachio tasting area.  Several different flavored pistachios were available to try before you buy.  Small cups were provided, and it was as simple as twisting the dial and the pistachios fell into my cup.  Our favorite two flavors were Lemon-Lime and Green Chili, we purchased a bag of both. 

Another highly recommended stop was Heart of the Desert Pistachios and Wine https://www.heartofthedesert.com/, which happens to be located right beside McGinn’s Pistachio Land.  We decided we had plenty of time for a wine tasting before dinner.  Like McGinn’s, they grow their own products.  Their vineyard is across the street and their pistachio trees surround their property.  As soon as we walked through the door we were greeted and presented with the opportunity to try any of their wide variety of products.  There was an entire case of various roasted flavored pistachios as well as chocolates and candies made with pistachios.  Then my favorite a green chili pistachio caramel popcorn.  All the samples were free.  

We made our way towards the back of the store where we could sample their wine.  It’s typical to pick a few different wines and pay a small fee.  Not here, the wine samples were also free!  Jess picked a couple she wanted to try and then chose her favorite and purchased a glass.  I found they also had several local bottled beers.  I picked one because I liked its name and thought it would be interesting. Then I grabbed a bag of that delicious popcorn, and we made our way to their deck overlooking the orchard.  We had the deck to ourselves.  It was a perfect ending to a wonderful first day in Alamogordo.  The beer was delicious!

Day two started early!  I set my alarm for 5 a.m.  We decided we would hike Dog Canyon Trail, which leaves from the visitor’s center at Oliver Lee State Park.  The weather forecast called for temperatures to be in the mid-nineties.  The hike would be about eleven miles long with 3500’ of elevation gain topping out just below 8000’.  It would be too much for the dogs, so we would leave them to enjoy the air conditioning.

We drank our coffee and ate our breakfast, gave the dogs their breakfast, and took them out a couple of times but it was still dark.  With the unknown terrain and potential for rattlesnake encounters, we were hesitant to start hiking before the sun rose.  Our concern for the hot afternoon sun outweighed our concern for wildlife and we decided to get started.

The trail immediately showed us it meant business!  It quickly climbed a few hundred feet, and we were treated to great views of the campground and valley beyond in the morning twilight.  This was the first trail I have ever hiked with mileage markers at each quarter mile.  I prefer the ignorance is bliss mindset when hiking.  If a section of trail is difficult, I surely do not want to know it took me thirty minutes to cover a half mile, I would rather focus on the beauty of the trail and blissfully let the miles pass.  This trail ensured we would always know our exact location.  We were surrounded by Ocotillos, Prickly Pear, Agave, and sweet-smelling creosote bushes, it was wonderful. 

The trail traversed through valleys up ridges and across high meadows.  The views became more incredible as the markers passed by.  We were vigilant of where we stepped, and constantly on the lookout for snakes, using our trekking poles to tap the rocks as we walked along.  We hoped this vibration would make any snakes aware of our presence.  Being from Maine, hiking with snakes is a new experience for us.  

At 2.9 miles we arrived at the remains of Frenchy’s cabin.  This cabin was used years ago by a local resident who raised their cattle in the area.  Many people turn around at this point of the trail. Over the next mile, described as the eyebrow, the trail rises over eight hundred vertical feet.  At most, the trail is a couple feet wide with one side dropping off into the valley below and the other side rising to cliffs above.  The trail is a mix of loose rock and gravel.  Jess and I both made sure our footing was secure and our trekking poles were positioned to assist us if we should start to slide.  This section of the trail gave us the best views of the entire hike. 

Just imagine this spot with water flowing! The colorful cactus contrasts the cascading layers of rock. Wow, I think I should plan to come back and see it during the monsoon.  

After the eyebrow, the trail continued to steadily ascend to a high meadow area with many Pinyon Pines.  The last mile of the trail traversed this enormous high mountain meadow with hay-like grasses.  I enjoyed the views in this area as much as I enjoyed the stunning views of the valley during our climb.  We made it all the way to our Forest Service Road and turned around to begin our descent.  Our hike is only halfway complete. 

 We picked out a nice shady area to enjoy our lunch about a mile into our descent.  We had to share the space with the ants, but it was OK they only ate a little bit!

The remainder of the hike down the mountain was fast and furious.  We put our legs into high gear and descended as quickly as we could.  The sun was high in the sky and there was no shade.  The heat of the day was attacking us from above and reflecting off the rocks from below.  We each drank two bottles of water just on our way down.  

We hiked a total of 13 miles over eight hours, gaining 3400’ of elevation.  Our highest point was just under 8000’.  It was a great hike! On our descent, we started making plans for dinner!  Yes, we had just eaten lunch.  We decided since so many people had recommended restaurants in Cloudcroft, that it would be a good night to make the drive to 9000’ and check out for ourselves what everyone was talking about.  

Cloudcroft is a small high-elevation village popular with tourists.  It is only 30 miles from Alamogordo and is packed with things to do.  There is hiking and biking, many shops and restaurants, and a museum that highlights the area’s logging and railroad history.  The community is also known for hosting a variety of events throughout the year.  We will only have time for dinner on this trip, which means we might need to come back to specifically visit this mountain town.

After spending some time with the dogs and feeding them dinner, it was time to make the trek up the valley to Cloudcroft which was about a 40-minute drive from our campground.  We chose Cloudcroft Brewing CO https://www.cloudcroftbrewing.com/. They served a variety of their own craft beers.  In addition, they make brick oven pizza, one of my favorites, especially after hiking.  They offered many specialty pizzas, as well as gluten-free crust and a plant-based cheese alternative.  

It was the perfect ending to a great day!  No box was needed, I might have eaten my entire pizza!

Our last day exploring Alamogordo started early with a trip to the local farmer’s market.  We had met Lynne through one of our Facebook RV groups.  She lives in the area and provided us with great information and suggestions on what to do when we were here.  She mentioned she would be at the farmer’s market as she owns Enchanted Desert Beads and sells her handcrafted jewelry there.  We decided this would be a great opportunity to meet her.  Her work was beautiful and she and her husband were wonderful to talk with.  We left the farmer’s market with some new friends, jalapenos, squash, and melons.

Our next stop of the day was The Museum of Space History https://www.nmspacemuseum.org, including the International Space Hall of Fame. There were five floors of Space stuff, and it was a great place for all ages.  Many interactive experiences and real NASA items, including ones that have traveled to space!  There is a Planetarium/ I-max theater with a variety of presentations available.  Also, there are many outside large exhibits.  From planes and missiles to engines and command units.  To my delight, there was an entire area dedicated to Gene Roddenberry and Star Trek.  

I have always loved Star Trek.  I have even been able to get Jess hooked.  Her favorite series is Voyager with Discovery a close second.  I had frequently teased my daughter when she was younger, that I wanted her to invent molecular transportation.  When she chose to attend Rochester Institute of Technology and became a software engineer, I thought there was a chance.  I was hoping she would pair up with a bioengineer another major offered at the school.  However, she never shared my enthusiasm; I think she thought I was a geek.  

I have been waiting my whole life to use a transporter.  I had no idea it would finally happen in Alamogordo!  Eventually, Jess told me it was time to leave!  

The weather was so nice when we returned from our exploring that we gathered up the dogs and took a final walk around Oliver Lee State Park. We hiked around the visitor’s center and enjoyed the variety of labeled desert plants.  There were many informative signs providing historical information about previous residents of the area.  We even hiked into the canyon and found the water we had heard so much about. 

We have loved our time in Alamogordo and the surrounding area although we have only scratched the surface of exploring everything it has to offer.  I already have a longer list than when we arrived.  This is a very good problem!  Someday we hope to return.  

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